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Rolex 24 at Hour 8: Kamui Kobayashi leads after starring in DPi drama at Daytona

Rolex 24 eight hours

#48: Ally Cadillac, Cadillac DPi, DPi: Mike Rockenfeller, Kamui Kobayashi, Jimmie Johnson, Jose Maria Lopez

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Through punctured tires and the eye-popping (and oft-controversial) talent of Kamui Kobayashi, the first eight hours of the 60th Rolex 24 at Daytona delivered some memorable moments in DPi.

The first was immediately after the green flag when Kobayashi caught pole-sitter Filipe Albuquerque off guard into Turn 1 and took the lead from the No. 10 Acura with a typically daring pass in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac that apparently impressed everyone but the two-time Rolex 24 overall winner.

“The 10 car?” Kobayashi, who was leading Saturday night in the No. 48 Cadillac through eight of 24 hours, initially replied when asked about his move on the opening lap. “Oh yeah, at the start. I don’t remember actually. OK, good move, you mean? Thank you! I actually don’t remember. I completely forgot.”

INFORMATION FOR THE 60TH ROLEX 24: Schedules, start times, entry lists

HOW TO WATCH ON NBC SPORTS: All the information for 24 hours of viewing

Some of his rivals in the top category took notice, though, as they often have while the Japanese driver has built a reputation for aggressive driving, particularly around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.

“I think it’s Kamui,” Chip Ganassi Racing driver Sebastien Bourdais said. “I don’t get it. He drove me off the track twice at Sebring in the closing stages, and nobody ever says or does anything about it, so he just keeps doing it. But it feels completely out of line for a 24-hour race. But it’s OK. We’ll keep moving.”

Albuquerque initially chirped his displeasure on the team radio after being passed, but the Wayne Taylor Racing driver demurred when asked about it later.

RUNNING ORDER: Standings through eight hours l By class

“He was not really aggressive,” Albuquerque said. “He was just faster than me. It’s just like we went around outside, he was fast, and in control.

“I think we all think the most experienced drivers (think) well, I’m going to go easy, but then you just get carried away with the pace and how everything falls out, and obviously Kamui had a really good car and was going fast and just pulling away. So I think he was comfortable with that.”

Of course, Kobayashi was.

“Well, you know me,” he said with a laugh. “It’s no surprise, maybe. I can say I drive like normal. I didn’t go crazy. I tried to manage minimum risk, to be honest.”

It’s hard to argue with a guy who has two victories and a runner-up finish through his three starts in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener. After his opening stints, an Internet prankster updated Daytona’s Wikipedia page with Kobayashi as the “owner” of the World Center of Racing – an assertion his teammate likely would have supported.

“I don’t think he was aggressive; he was great,” said Jose Maria Lopez, who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Kobayashi. “He pulled out the lead and kept it. I never saw him doing something that was risky. I think Kamui is fantastic. What he did the first two stints was amazing. Been lucky to have him in the team. I’m surprised the other drivers say that. I don’t know if drivers from other series, other categories from us. I think he drove very well. I don’t see anything wrong with the way Kamui did it. I’m proud of him.

“I know him for 10 years now, been his teammate. So I’m not surprised. I can see people screaming, but that is Kamui. He always brings it back, and he never does mistakes, so I know he’s like this.”

Said Jimmie Johnson: “Some of us think it’s bold, and you talk to him and he’s fully in control and thinks it’s fine. I think we all have a style on the track and how we race, people know when he’s coming. Usually, they leave room and he’s going to take it. He did a great job getting to the front. He didn’t touch anybody, but we got hit, so good racing.”

While Kobayashi had mostly smooth sailing, the ride was a bit choppier for the rest of the Action Express team.

Making his Rolex 24 debut, Lopez had a solid first stint in hanging onto the lead he inherited from Kobayashi. But then he lost first by running wide after locking the front wheels under braking on cold tires after exiting the pits.

Two laps later, he was rear-ended by Bourdais.

“I did very well on the first stint and gained time and was feeling fine and probably tried to do too much,” Lopez said. “I like to expect nothing and have low expectations so I don’t be surprised. I knew it was going to be difficult. I know it’s even more in the night with the cold. It was a tough stint, which really counts. You just need to survive and be there at end.

Neither he nor Bourdais could explain what happened to cause their collision, though neither took the blame.

“I’m not entirely sure what happened,” Bourdais said. “All of a sudden, it was almost like he brake-checked and swerved to the right, but he definitely wheeled the thing to the right pretty severely to avoid the big contact that was going to happen. Still knocked the dive plane off the left front. I’m sure (team owner) Chip (Ganassi) is going to give me a big thumbs up on that. I had no idea. I really wasn’t expecting that one at all.”

Though the No. 01 Cadillac suffered minor damage, the No. 48’s rear diffuser was destroyed, but it took a few hours until having the time to replace the rear end under yellow while Johnson was in the car.

During the pit stop, the team noticed damage to the dive planes, necessitating a change of the front nose as well. When Johnson rejoined the field just before the restart, he was stuck in a gaggle of GT traffic, and he had to veer onto the grass to avoid a crash ahead of him.

“When the track went green, I had a couple of hairy moments down the front straightaway trying to sneak by on the wall,” Johnson said. “Once we came out of Turn 1, there was dirt and dust everywhere, and I could see some taillights. I turned right to miss the taillights, then realized I was out in the grass.”

The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion couldn’t recall the last time he’d been off course during his previous eight Rolex 24 starts.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “It probably was one of the few times I’ve been in the dirt. Couldn’t believe how much dirt the nose shoveled up over the front of the car and how bad my visibility was. Plus, being behind other cars out there.

“It drove decent in the dirt. I expected to go spinning and didn’t with how cold it is and being moisture in the grass, it would have been slick but drove through OK.”

Fortunately, nothing was damaged in the incident, and the car also “drove so much better” after the nose and rear end replacements. “Fixing that, was worth a big chunk of speed,” Johnson said.

Shortly after he handed off again to Kobayashi, the No. 48 was back in the lead, and Johnson, who was making his fifth IMSA endurance start in the past year, felt vindicated about his improvement from last year during a stint that ran about an hour and 45 minutes.

“For sure, each rep I get in these cars,” said Johnson, who is seeking his first Rolex 24 victory. “You really don’t get seat time until race time, and if you’re not on pace, you get pulled early because it’s so competitive in the DPi class. Last year I wasn’t close enough to earn more drive time. Just got to hit the minimum and get out. This year, I seemed be on pace. I think (the season finale at Petit) was the first time they asked me to stay in the car longer.”

While the Cadillacs led much of the race in the top class, misfortune struck the two Acuras.

Aiming to win its first Rolex 24 in 10 years, the No. 60 of Meyer Shank Racing suffered a flat left rear tire during the fourth hour shortly after Helio Castroneves had taken the lead.

The four-time Indy 500 winner limped back to the pits without sustaining major damage and without an explanation as to what had happened.

“I asked them if it was (hitting) a curb, and they said they couldn’t figure it out,” Castroneves said. “I’m not sure if it was debris, maybe warming up. It’s very surprising and upsetting.”

About 30 laps later, Will Stevens was just as befuddled by a puncture on the right-rear tire of Wayne Taylor Racing’s No. 10.

Stevens lost control on the entry to Turn 1 in an accident that was “very odd. I can’t really get my head around it, to be honest. We were approaching a lot of cars, and it wasn’t even as if I was pushing into Turn 1. Suddenly, the rear of the car just snapped away. Michelin has looked at the tire to see if something odd happened.

“The way I lost the car at that point in braking zone, it’s something that wouldn’t happen in these cars. For something to snap away from the car like it did, and it wasn’t as if I was on a full push lap, either. I was just trying to take an easy approach in a gaggle of cars. So it’s tough to see what happened.”

After losing two laps, the No. 10 got back on the lead lap with less than 15 hours to go and seemed up to speed in pursuit of a record fourth consecutive Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Castroneves said the Acura were running “totally different setups,” and neither driver thought the tire issues were related to the manufacturer.

“It’s just very odd a few cars are having issues with tires,” Stevens said. “We just need to keep our head down, focus on the good things that happen and work our way back to the front.”

Other class leaders after eight hours of the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

LMP2 – No. 8 ORECA LMP2 of Tower Motorsports

LMP3 – No. 74 Ligier JS P320 of Riley Motorsports

GTDPRO – No. 62 Ferrari of Risi Competizione

GTD – No. 57 Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Winward Racing